The History of Embroidery: From Tutankhamun to the 21st Century

Before the advent of machines, embroidery served as a language that helped us understand the world

When was embroidery first used? And where? Although these questions may seem simple, they are very difficult to answer. Examples from different cultures have been found all around the world. It’s an intrinsically human art form, the techniques of which have remained the same throughout centuries. Having endured the test of time, in recent years we have seen embroidery make a comeback and its popularity soar.

Traditionally, embroidery was labeled a “feminine” activity. This mindset meant that society viewed it as a simple pastime. However, at the same time, it became a very intimate activity: a way of recounting history in secret. Do you want to learn more? Watch the video below:

A millennial and global art

The oldest example of embroidery to have been discovered was, surprisingly, found in a place shrouded in mystery, myths, and legends: the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun.

However, this isn’t the only ancient example. On the American continent, discoveries in a necropolis on the Peruvian coast proved that this technique was being used thousands of years before vast empires were formed.

When the Han dynasty of China expanded its trade routes through central Asia and established the Silk Road, an exchange of cultures began, which can be seen in the embroidery from that time. The Chinese patterns were mixed with Persian and Arabic art, creating a universal language that was written in flower motifs and geometric patterns.

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21st-century embroidery. China.

In France, embroidery decorated the edges of garments. Not just limited to clothing, it was also a medium through which history became immortalized. This is true of the oldest embroidered tapestry to have been conserved: the Bayeux Tapestry–70 meters of embroidery that commemorates the battle of Hastings.

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Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry (between 1082 and 1096)

Embroidery as a symbol of social status

The meticulous work of embroidering patterns onto clothing was incredibly valuable. The rich and powerful wore embroidered fabrics to show off their social status.

The Anglo-Saxon maestros created Opus Anglicanum, which applied gold and silver threads to rich velvet, and was reserved for religious and sacred objects. Embroidery with precious metals became a symbol of power.

However, Queen Catherine of Aragon–the first wife of Henry VIII–introduced England to blackwork, a monochromatic style of embroidery that stood out for its complex and elegant patterns, not because it was showy and shiny.

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Portrait of Mary Cornwallis, Countess of Bath, by George Gower (1580)

Not just a sign of wealth and opulence

While embroidery often was considered a sign of power and status across different cultures, this discipline also was adopted by more humble folk. For example, the mesoamerican “huipil”, characterized by its colorful designs, was a popular item across social classes.

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On the other hand, many other traditional embroidery styles evolved out of practicality. Japanese Sashiko, for example, was essentially a method for patching up broken garments using embroidery.

These patterns that didn’t dress kings, nor decorate churches, nor use gold or silk, became a part of each place’s culture and the tradition was passed along generations, becoming a legacy. More than just a luxury, embroidery was a sign of identity.

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The arrival of industrialization and the loom

The arrival of industrialization had a big effect on embroidery. The Jacquard loom (the machine invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801) weaved complex patterns such as brocade and damask. It was controlled by a punched card system that was a precursor to the data systems used in telegraphs and even the first computers. This machine revolutionized the industry and accelerated production of embroidery work that, up until then, had been meticulous and laborious.

Later on, the Schiffli embroidery machine (1863) would complete the automation process, and human hands were no longer necessary.

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Gradually, machines came into use all over the world and hand embroidery became a domestic activity, and was added to the long list of qualifications that were thought to make a woman the “perfect wife”. But embroidery became a form of artistic expression that lots of women would use to put their unique stamp on the items around them and to create their own works of art.

Books of patterns and motifs facilitated learning the technique. Some samples include verses from the bible, proverbs, or personal reflections that captured the evolution of people’s way of thinking and the ongoing social change.

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Lydia at the Tapestry Loom, by Mary Cassat (1881)

A new wave of embroidery

The first waves of feminism rejected roles that had been imposed over centuries. This coupled with advances in technology, the invention of synthetic fibers, and the minimalism of the modern world meant that embroidery wasn’t deemed interesting and was instead viewed as something of the past.

However, now, after decades of technological advances, objects and their designs are mass-produced, and creating something that is hand-made has become a radical act. Over the last decade, embroidery has made a big comeback and recuperated its rebellious side. It allows us to create unique, authentic, and personal pieces with our own hands. And, although what we make channels a present-day aesthetic, we’re using a technique that has written centuries of history.

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You may also like:

Advanced Embroidery Techniques: Stitches and Compositions with Volume, a course by Señorita Lylo
Introduction to Raised Embroidery, a course by Adriana Torres
Embroidery and Accessories Customization, a course by Josefina Allendes
Creative Embroidery: The Stitch Revolution, a course by Trini Guzmán (holaleon)

Read in Spanish. English version by Eloise Edgington.


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